Following months of uncertainty, Toni Hladky welcomed the first summer workouts for her volleyball team. She would finally know who was going to jump ship for Thunder Basin and who was going to stay a Camel.
Gillette was already facing its longest drought between state championships. A roster in shambles would have been incredibly difficult to handle.
Still, Hladky knew it was out of her hands. So she let the chips fall.
“There was a lot of uncertainty going into this year,” she said last month at the Casper Invite. “But our philosophy was we’ll take whoever we have and we’ll be the best team we can.”
It was that kind of character her players admired her for. So most elected to stay.
Four players off last year’s state semifinalist team — seniors Megan Phillips, Kierra Cutright and Mollie Wilson, as well as junior Rylee Hladky — all decided to stay in purple.
“We just have a lot of kids that chose to stay that they’re just loyal to the program and to the people that have put in the time for them,” Toni Hladky said. “So we definitely appreciate that and respect that a great deal.”
Rylee Hladky leads the East Conference in passing ratio (2.21) and is second in kills (3.8 per set). Wilson is fourth in the conference with 2.5 kills per set.
Still, while the newly arrived cross-town rival Bolts struggled out of the gates, the Camels also struggled to find consistency. It was as if losing players to graduation and to transfers had taken away their winning edge.
“We were kind of starting slow,” Toni Hladky said. “Now we do a better job of coming out quicker but we need to finish. There have been several leads that we’ve had at the end of the game and we weren’t able to finish out. That’s one of our goals right now.”
It has worked, with one large exception.
With an opportunity to stay even with Class 4A East Conference-leading Laramie in the final week of the season, the Camels couldn’t keep up. A second loss to the Plainsmen put to bed any thoughts of a regular-season conference championship.
“I think, mainly, we just quit doing our job,” Hladky said. “We weren’t passing very well, and since we weren’t passing very well, we weren’t able to put the ball on the court.”
Even though Gillette failed to put together a long winning streak during the conference grind, the Camels (22-11, 8-4 Class 4A East) were in a good position going into regionals.
Gillette finished the regular season tied with Cheyenne East for the No. 2 spot in the conference standings. The T-Birds won the tiebreaker and the automatic berth into the state tournament while the Camels were banished to the first day of regionals, needing two wins to make it to the Casper Events Center.
Panic nearly set in after Cheyenne Central, who Gillette handled in the regular season, upset the Camels in five sets. Gillette recovered to sweep both Sheridan and Central to clinch a spot at state. The Camels forced five sets against Laramie on Saturday before being swept by Cheyenne East in the third-place match.
That sets up a first-round meeting with Kelly Walsh on Thursday in the state tournament.
For now, Hladky and her team will once again focus on what they can control. It’s still been 17 years since the last time Gillette has won a state volleyball championship, the longest drought between title seasons since the program won its first in 1989.
But they can’t control that for a couple of days.
“We just want to work on being mentally tough and being competitive,” Hladky said. “Then just lots of skill work and hopefully it will come together at the right time.”